The winning mindset of a top athlete might be a possibility for academics, if managers worked out how not to demotivate them. Liz Morrish has been paying attention to the UK’s top ocean swimmer.
I went to a fascinating book launch last week. The book, Man vs Ocean, is by Adam Walker and was written after his successful completion of the Ocean’s Seven. This – according to Wikipedia – is the swimmers’ equivalent to the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge. It encompasses The English Channel, The Catalina Channel in California, The Cook Strait in New Zealand, The Molokai Channel in Hawaii, The Strait of Gibraltar, The Tsugaru Strait in Japan and The North Channel which lies between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Currently only six people have successfully completed all seven swims, which, by the way, must be done unaided and wearing only a regulation swimsuit.
Each of Adam’s swims featured a major difficulty, which might have wilted the resolve of lesser mortals. Adam was able to persist through injury, personal sadness, fear of sharks, cold, and, in the Molokai Channel, the vicious sting of a Portuguese Man o’ War jellyfish that threatens to shut down your major organs. The Cook Strait swim was enlivened by a pod of dolphins who seemed to be protecting Adam from a lurking shark, and who made him feel connected to his oceanic habitat in a new and joyous way. As a (more leisurely) open water swimmer, I had followed most of Adam’s voyages on Twitter, and so was voraciously looking forward to reading the book. I recommend it to you.
Like everyone else in the room, I was thrilled to meet this engaging and modest man as he read and recounted tales from his ten year quest for the Ocean’s Seven. In moving from a job as a toaster salesman to conqueror of the planet’s most tumultuous seas, Adam described a transformative experience. His self-belief had grown enormously. He was no longer daunted by challenges and he felt equipped to succeed. Here was a man who strode the planet, and swam its oceans, with justifiable confidence.
I took away an important key message – not finishing a project is not an option. This is something I can definitely respond to, as can most academics. We may not be in the world’s top six in our field, but we deliver high quality teaching and research, nevertheless. We embark upon PhDs, writing books and articles, major research projects, and the pursuit of recognition as our careers unfold. But, I mused later over dinner with a friend, why do academics feel so defeated, even in the face of striving and achievement. Haven’t we also surmounted self-doubt, intellectual and institutional hurdles, faced our fears of exposure and ridicule, taken risks, charted unknown waters and made our mark on the world stage? Some of us may even have our own version of swimming with sharks, or being levelled by a poisonous sting. I started to wonder why so many of us are failing to rejoice in our achievements.
It was interesting the next day to read this piece by Anonymous Academic in the Guardian – a kind of positive spin on academic life. On Twitter, it was immediately garlanded with affirmation from a number of people – among them a vice-chancellor and a pro vice-chancellor. Among the other ranks, though, there was a less uniform reception. “My favourite parts are the job insecurity, long working hours, and fiercely intense competition for funding” snarled Paul Coxon. For me, those are not the major blights; these reside in the shifting goals and parameters as institutions equivocate over what to prioritise this year. Graduate employability is the current totem, but we must also respond to the demands of research league tables, student satisfaction scores, quality enhancement strategies and all the rest. I have blogged previously about the quite unattainable expectations being placed on many academics at Russell Group Universities: multiple research outputs classed as world-leading, conference participation, especially as keynote speakers, international collaborations, innovation and leadership within one’s field, research grant ‘capture’ and income generation, proving impact of research, supervision of PhD students, and, of course, high student satisfaction scores.
It is a dizzying array of expectations, leading to a kind of individual lighthouse effect, whereby the researcher focusses on whatever seems most pressing at the time, leaving other ‘drivers’ neglected and awaiting the notice of sharks who are keen to point out the gaps in performance.
What, I pondered, if there were an Ocean’s Seven for university academics? What might its constituents be? Seven 4* publications, with impact? Seven major program research grants? Seven PhD students placed in lectureships in Russell Group universities? All of the above. One certainty is that, whatever the milestones, they would keep shifting. You would always be judged by what you had failed to complete, rather than what you had accomplished. In the kind of Hunger Games dystopia of UK universities, if anyone achieved them all, managers would add another. Indeed, anyone subsequently falling short of all seven would find themselves designated as failing, and placed on punitive performance improvement procedures in order to ‘empower’ them.
Nobody is ever going to tell Adam he is under-performing. I hope if they did, they might find themselves swimming with sharks, but he seems too nice, too humane to arrange that. But it has happened to some of the highest achieving colleagues I know, whose record and esteem should be beyond disparagement.
Perhaps the answer lies in the other advice that Adam gave. I know about the debate over structure versus agency, and I do accept that institutions are rarely as facilitative as their HR policies make out. But in order to end your career with any sense of self-worth, you need to be working for your own satisfaction. Ignore the false metrics and the externally-imposed benchmarks, and do it for yourself. Do it because you desire the achievement and because it is what you were put on earth to do. Break the whole endeavour down into very small parts; one stroke after another. And keep going. Be sure to celebrate your success, and try to disregard the setbacks and anything else that makes the journey seem hopeless. I just hope you are swimming with dolphins, and not with the killers who are after your bodily organs.